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Simon requiem 4852939
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Carlos Simon (b. 1986)
Requiem for the Enslaved
Marco Pavé (speaker)
MK Zulu (trumpet)
Carlos Simon (piano)
Hub New Music
rec. 2021/22, Futura Productions, Ventura, USA; Omega Recording Studios, Washington DC
Reviewed as download from press preview
DECCA 4852939 [55]

With Requiem for the Enslaved, composer Carlos Simon and hip-hop artist Marco Pavé pay tribute to the 272 men, women and children sold in 1838 by Georgetown College, known today as Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The sale generated the equivalent of $3 million dollars in today’s money. Part of the proceeds paid off the college’s debts; a portion went towards the construction of a building named in honor of one of the men who organized the sale.

The slaves, some of whom had been donated to the college by wealthy benefactors, toiled on plantations that were no longer producing an income stream sufficient to meet the college’s needs. There were reports of slaves who prayed the rosary as they were being sold to plantation owners from the Deep South. In 2020, Georgetown established a reparation fund of 100 million dollar as part of its truth and reconciliation effort. The fund was to benefit the descendants of those slaves, over 5000 of them.

The creators of Requiem for the Enslaved are both affiliated with Georgetown. Simon became a member of the faculty of its Department of Performing Arts in 2019. A winner of the 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence, which recognizes extraordinary classical Black and Latinx musicians, he is the son of a New Orleans preacher. He writes concert music and film scores; although they incorporate jazz and gospel, they are firmly rooted in the Western classical music tradition. Simon is on record as preferring the classical style, as there are neither rules to follow nor restrictions on the use and combination of instruments. That gives him the freedom to express what he wants to say through music.

Pavé also became affiliated with Georgetown in 2019, when he became its first hip-hop artist-in-residence. Once described as a ‘Millennial Muslim from Memphis’, Pavé was hardly a safe choice for either the university as a hire or Simon as an artistic partner. The controversies that engulfed him included the US Department of Education threatening to revoke funding for the Duke University and University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies when they sponsored Pavé’s outdoor concert. The Department alleged that the institutions had failed to use their government funding to ‘ensure the security, stability and economic vitality of the United States’ by giving him a platform.

In Requiem for the Enslaved, art and integrity triumph over controversy. The beauty of Simon’s music and the straightforward, impassioned eloquence of Pavé’s delivery of the text he wrote serve as a fitting memorial to those held in bondage. The work also recasts those people as heroes, as human beings deprived of their freedom but not their dignity. The framework of the Catholic Mass for the dead to honor those for whom no memorials were raised is even more fitting.

That is not to say that Pavé’s text is not discomforting. Fragments of the Requiem texts take on an edge when juxtaposed with searing, heart-rendering depictions of the aspirations and fates of the enslaved. In the opening Invocation, he recites the names and ages of a family of slaves held by Georgetown, including Isaac, 65 years old, and his progeny. Some of them are small children, others are of those who ran away dreaming to be free. It ends with the Requiem Prayer, with its hope for eternal rest and perpetual light shining upon the departed.

Pavé punctures the American myth with its promise of all men being created equal while accepting slavery as an economic necessity. His delivery of words to the effect that the Founding Fathers may have enunciated a list of inviolable freedoms but violated the Ten Commandments through their actions is particularly searing. In the Requiem, fugitive slaves are cast as heroes: running away is the crime of the brave, and freeing oneself is tremendous and magnificent. There is anger in the words which Pavé speaks, but the overriding emotion which they impart is one of profound sorrow.

Simon’s score is an amalgam of styles that include Gregorian chant and spirituals. When the music serves as an accompaniment to Pavé’s recitations, it creates mood and atmosphere. Solos emerge from the score from either the trumpet, played by MK Zulu, or the individual instruments that make up Hub New Music: violin, cello, flute and clarinet. The solos can either be wails of desperations or expressions of hope. Simon anchors the ensemble on the piano, and the instrumental playing is as emotion-laden as Pavé’s voice.

In the instrumental interludes that course through the work, as well as three bonus tracks, Simon expresses the complex sentiments inherent in the traditional Requiem Mass and in Pavé’s tribute to enslaved people. The music has great purity and beauty. The tolling of a bell unifies the work but triggers conflicting feelings. Bells have always been central to both the academic and spiritual realms at Georgetown, but also summoned slaves to work on plantations.

The final section of the Requiem, entitled ‘in paradisium’, is the final blessings on the body prior to burial in the funeral mass. Its text begins with the words ‘May the angels lead you into paradise’ and concludes with a prayer for eternal rest. Rather than reciting the text or utilizing the ancient Gregorian hymn tune, Simon composed for this section a musical meditation on ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. For him, it was a return to his cultural heritage, as the well-known hymn is played at jazz funerals in his native New Orleans. In Requiem for the Enslaved, Simon’s setting of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ is a transcendent, wordless prayer, as bittersweet as it is beautiful.

Rick Perdian

1 I. invocation
2 II. lord have mercy (let us go)
3 kyrie
4 interlude (Issac ran away)
5 to be in that number
6 III. we all found heaven
7 IV. grant them rest
8 interlude (i got shoes)
9 remember me (spoken word interlude)
10 V. remember me
11 light everlasting interlude
12 VI. light everlasting
13 VII. deliver me
14 VIII. gloria
15 IX. shine upon them
16 X. in paradisium (into paradise)
17 light everlasting (solo piano version)
18 in paradisium (instrumental version) jazz trumpet When the Saints
19 we all found heaven (instrumental version) swing low chariot

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